Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Training Update

As I have been discussing on and off since last October, I have found myself physically unable to participate in randonneuring to the extent I had hoped when I started a couple of years ago. I had hoped to ride a brevet a month, the super brevet series of 200, 300, 400, and 600 kilometer brevets, and a 1200 kilometer brevet. In fact, I find I can only ride a single 200 kilometer brevet a year. In previous posts, I have listed some possible explanations:

1) I give up too easily.
2) I have an illness.
3) I am training incorrectly.
4) More than one 200K brevet a year is simply beyond my capabilities.

Related questions I have been exploring include:

5) Can I use my resting heart rate as an indicator of fatigue to guide my training?
6) By monitoring my training results, can I define a better training strategy and/or better define my capabilities?
7) Given my limitations, what fun rides (brevet or otherwise) should I attempt?

Today's post is an update on these issues.

To put this discussion into context, I have not given up on randonneuring. I have renewed my memberships in RUSA (the national randonneuring organization) and Houston Randonneurs (my local randonneuring club) for 2014. On the other hand, I do not plan to maintain my tradition of a May 200K brevet, in part because Houston Randonneurs is not offering one in 2014. Here is their schedule:

The spring 200K brevet is in April this year. That combined with the fact that my training schedule is delayed relative to last year and my desire to try a training schedule that is more sustainable and less exhausting have caused me to decide to wait until the fall to attempt my next 200K. In fact, I still consider myself in recovery mode from the 2013 season so I feel like this delay is a good thing.

The first question, do I give up too easily, is almost completely subjective. Considering it subjectively, I am convinced this is not the problem. The problem I am confronting is not that I fail to attempt or complete a brevet, but that when I do complete one, it leaves me so exhausted I cannot ride another for several months.

The second question, if I have an illness, I proposed to address during my annual physical examination, and that I have done. In every way that is relevant to cycling, I am in perfect health. I directly addressed my randonneuring concerns to my doctor and the results were rather comical. "You are complaining to me that you find it hard to ride 130 miles on your bicycle?" he said incredulously. "That is not a health issue. Not being able to walk up a flight of stairs is a health issue. My advice to you is, if you find it difficult to ride 130 miles, ride 65 miles." Humor aside, my clean bill of health eliminates illness as the explanation for my randonneuring limitations.

The remainder of my questions and thus the remainder of this post has to do with my training and my intrinsic limitations. It is my understanding that proper training results from riding up to the limit of one's fatigue but not beyond. To that end, it would be extremely valuable to have a clear and simple measure of fatigue. One that is often proposed is resting heart rate, and thus my question number five, can I use my resting heart rate as a measure of my fatigue? I have been attempting to do this since the end of last August, and as of today, I am sad to say I believe I cannot. Traditionally, fatigue is signaled by an increase in resting heart rate, and I quickly convinced myself that this does not happen with me. However, I thought I saw hints that the reverse was true, that for me, fatigue might be signaled by a decrease in resting heart rate. This seemed plausible given Joe Friel's assertion that such a reversal is common in older cyclists, but I now think what I saw was a statistical coincidence. Comparing six months of resting heart rate measurements with the intensity and volume of my cycling and with my subjective impressions of fatigue show no correlation whatsoever. I will continue to record my resting heart rate in case a pattern develops in the future, but at present, I find nothing in this measurement I can use.

This leaves me with four related questions; what are my limits, how should I train, what data can I collect that will help me plan more effective training, and what data can I collect that will help me define my limits? The one result that seems to have consistently tracked with my ability to ride a brevet are the results of my Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) tests. A MAF test is both a training ride and a measurement of fitness. The test itself consists of riding for 45 minutes on the bicycle track at Rice University, keeping my heart rate between 130 and 140 beats per minute (BPM), a heart rate range which for me corresponds to Zone 2 (of 5) as defined by Joe Friel. This also corresponds to moderate exercise (as opposed to light exercise or vigorous exercise) as defined by the American College of Sports Medicine. Thus, from a training perspective, this is an easy ride. In addition to the 45 minutes of the test, I also spend 20 to 25 minutes each warming up for the test and cooling down from it, for a total riding time of about 1½ hours. The result from this test is my average speed during the 45 minute ride which has varied between 12 and 17 miles per hour (MPH.) Some of this variation is due to wind or other random factors, but on average, my speed in a MAF test corresponds to my level of fitness. I first began these tests in December of 2012, after my failed attempt at a second 200K brevet in 2012 and in preparation for a successful 200K brevet in 2013. I now have over a year of data covering my successful preparation for the May 2013 brevet, my unsuccessful attempt at a November 2013 brevet, a rest period after that attempt, and a resumption of training. I will now go through that data, drawing what conclusions I can.

Period 1: Successful Preparation for a 200K Brevet

MAF test results, December 2012 through May 2013. The blue dots connected by thick blue lines are the actual results. The thin grey line is a best fit straight line showing that, despite the ups and downs, on average, the results are increasing. The red arrows mark transitions in my training regimen. From left to right, the first arrow marks when I went from riding only MAF tests to when I added one 30 to 40 mile long ride each week. The second arrow marks when I began a 10% a week ramp up of mileage of the weekly long ride from 40 miles to 90 miles. The third arrow marks when I rode my 200K brevet.

Prior to the time shown on the graph above, in October of 2012 I realized I would not be able to ride a 200K brevet in November, so I spent the month of November resting, averaging only 2 rides and 40 miles a week, with one period of almost two weeks with no rides. In December, when the chart begins, I began riding MAF tests, averaging about four MAF tests a week. In addition, I rode an average of one social ride a week for an average of 80 miles per week. In mid-January, indicated on the graph by the first red arrow, I began substituting one longer ride (30 to 40 miles) for a MAF test each week which along with continuing the remaining MAF tests and social rides averaged about 130 miles per week. Starting in March (the second red arrow) I started increasing the length of the long ride at 10% a week, from 40 miles to 90 miles, with my longest weekly total being 180 miles. Looking at the data, one might argue that results didn't start improving until I added the weekly long ride, but overall, it seemed like the scores increased over this training interval which successfully lead to my completing a brevet.

Period 2: Unsuccessful Preparation for a Second 200K Brevet in 2013

MAF test results, May 2013 through December of 2013. The blue dots connected by thick blue lines are the actual results. The thin grey lines are drawn by hand; they are my "eyeball" estimate of the "trend" of the MAF test results. The red arrows mark transitions in my training regimen. From left to right, the first arrow marks the end of my rest period after my May 2013 brevet. The second arrow marks when I made a change in training plans. The third arrow marks when I abandoned my attempt to complete a second brevet and began a two month long rest period.

After my May brevet, I took a five week break. In retrospect, that "break" was unfortunately vigorous, perhaps contributing to the failure of subsequent training. I averaged 3 to 4 rides a week and averaged 75 miles per week (both almost twice that of the previous rest period.) Also, I was ill during part of this period; in my opinion, the period of that illness should not count as rest. Finally, for personal reasons, I participated in one rather hard ride during that "rest", 50 miles at high speed. The end of that "rest" period is marked by the first arrow on the graph. Whether my reduction in MAF test scores is due to reduction in training, illness, or fatigue I won't even guess. My training between the first and second arrows was similar to that between the first and second arrows on the previous graph; three to four MAF tests a week, one long ride of about 35 miles a week, and one to two social rides a week. Between the times indicated by the second and third arrows, I both experimented with a change in training and began a 10% per week increase the mileage of my long ride, ending when I was able to complete an 80 mile long ride but not a 90 mile long ride. What I noted at the time and still find provocative is that, unlike on the previous graph, there was no increase in my MAF test scores during this time. My suspicion is that this reflects chronic fatigue remaining from the training for and riding of the previous 200K brevet. The rest phase at the end of this graph, the start of which is marked by the third arrow, was much more of a rest than the one at the beginning, averaging 2.2 rides and 42 miles per week and including a 19 day period with no bicycling whatsoever. I am assuming that the rapid drop in MAF test scores during this period reflect the reduction in training perhaps aggravated by persistent fatigue.

Period 3: Resumption of Base Training

MAF test results, January 2014 through February 2014. The blue dots connected by thick blue lines are the actual results. The thin grey line is a best fit straight line showing that, despite the ups and downs, overall, the results are increasing. The red line with arrowheads marks a six day period of no cycling due to family travel.

My inability to ride a second 200K brevet in November of 2013 left me extremely discouraged, and when my MAF test results plummeted thereafter, that only added to the discouragement. Honestly, I was tempted to hang up the bike and forget the whole thing. One thing that kept me from doing that was that I knew that I needed to keep exercising to maintain my health, and that cycling was by far my favorite form of exercise. Thus, to cope with my despair, I put my head down and started a mindless routine of joining my wife in her bicycle ride to work, turning off at Rice University, riding a MAF test, and then riding home. By getting my ride out of the way first thing, by coupling it with time with my wife, and by engaging in an activity with a metric to measure my improvement, I developed enough enthusiasm to keep going. Some days when the weather makes an early morning ride less than delightful, I wait until it is warmer or the rain has let up and do a 20 mile ride along Braes Bayou not wearing a heart rate monitor. For these rides, I try to ride fairly fast, faster than a MAF test. I have no particular reason for riding at higher speed except that I find it enjoyable, but in retrospect I do feel it has helped my fitness. Depending on the weather, other plans, how much riding I have been able to do in the past, what riding I expect to be able to do in the future, and how I am feeling, I decide on a Bayou ride, a MAF test, or a rest day. Over the period of this graph I have averaged 5 rides and 84 miles per week. Despite its randomness and roots in despair, this schedule seems to be working rather well, at least as judged by MAF test results. My rate of improvement is much faster than it was a year ago, suggesting that I am getting better as a cyclist over the long run, a delightful surprise.

One last observation: when I realized that I would be missing six consecutive days of cycling due to a family trip, I became concerned about losing fitness. I tried to minimizing that by riding as hard as I could just before the trip and resuming training as soon as possible afterwards. I don't know how important these adjustments in my training were, but for whatever reason, I seem to have lost no discernible fitness from this pause in training, a result I find encouraging to say the least.

Conclusions and Future Plans

I now believe that my inability to ride more than one 200 kilometer brevet a year is some combination of my personal limitations (due in part to my age) and some training errors, obvious in hindsight, that caused me to become too fatigued and prevented me from recovering from that fatigue. Assessing my fatigue at various points during my training turns out to be essential. Unfortunately, my resting heart rate is not useful for that so far as I can tell. I have found only two tools, both subjective, for assessing my fatigue and I think I need them both. The first and obvious one is listening to my body. The second, critical one is past experience. The problem I have with brevets is not so much being able to ride them, but the state I am in afterwards. Listening to my body does not help in this case and that's where past experience becomes important.

Should I or should I not ride more 200 kilometer brevets in the future? Should I or should I not try some longer brevets? These remain questions for the future. The absence of longer rides from my current training schedule makes it inadequate preparation for 60 and 70 mile rides, much less a 200 kilometer (124 mile) brevet, and so as the weather improves and my fatigue continues to wane I will be adding a weekly long ride. What I will not do is what I did in 2012 and 2013, engage in a weekly 10% increase in the length of that ride. My experience tells me that leaves me exhausted. Rather, I will try for a sustainable long distance ride. An experiment I will try to that end, based on an idea from Joe Friel's Training Bible, is to wear a heart rate monitor for these rides. What I expect to happen is that when I first start these rides, I will observe decoupling; either my heart rate will go up or my speed will go down towards the end of the ride. I will continue riding the same distance until decoupling disappears before increasing the distance. Will decoupling in fact disappear? How long can I make this ride before that stops happening and I have to reduce the distance back to where there is no decoupling? I believe I may be able to use these facts to develop a better, more sustainable training regimen and to better determine which brevets (if any) I should attempt.


  1. Check out And add HARD rides to your regimen. I ride centuries, brevet, and things like RAIN, and I coach teenage runnerss. Here is what I would suggest: Get your HR up, UP in zone 4 for extended periods, ride long enough and hard enough that the last 5-10 miles are a slog just to get home, then ride easy for a few days. Do some intervals - 30 secs as hard as you posssibly can go, so hard you can't help but slow the last 10 seconds no matter how hard you try. Recover and do it again. If you are really going hard, that may be enough at first! Try it again in a week. Do one of those workouts every 3-5 days, they will put lead in your pencil! Our motto for the young kids is "Leave your comfort Zone behind!" it works for us older guys, too - I am 60 and ride with guys older than me that do the type of stuff I outlined. And if you want to ride long, train long. Ride everyday, easy when you need to, HARD when you can. Do a bike tour, riding a loaded bike 40-80 miles day after day after day after day. FUN and it builds a lot of resilience.

  2. Ditch the MAF tests or at most do one every 7-10 days with the day or two before extremely easy (small chainring ) just riding around for no more than 45 minutes. My observation is that you are in a constant state of fatigue. I don't understand the need to constantly do MAF tests. As I have said before, I think you need to adjust your Zone levels down by 5-7 beats.

    1. Howdy, jbithaca, welcome back! I have missed you and seeing your comment brought a big, Texas smile to my face. I hope you don't hate me because I don't take your advice but for the life of me, I cannot see what you have against my MAF Test rides. You advise me to ride around for no more than 45 minutes in my small chain ring* - that's what a MAF test is. If I "just ride" (no heart rate monitor) my level of effort is higher, not lower, than a MAF test. The function of the heart rate monitor in my MAF tests is to keep my level of effort down. Riding around and around the Rice University Bike Track (which I do for safety, we are currently loosing a cyclist every few days here in Houston) is extremely boring, so I tend to get lost in thought. When my attention wanders back to my ride and I look down at my heart rate monitor, as often as not I have let it drift above 140 bpm, so I slow down. I think I am beginning to get a pretty good subjective sense of my fatigue level, and what puts me in a state of fatigue is very long rides like a 200 kilometer brevet or the 80 and 90 mile long training rides leading up to it. In fact, when I ride a MAF test day after day after day I find my subjective fatigue level goes down and stays down; I find I have more energy to tackle the HoneyDo list at home, for example.

      * Note on the small chain ring: Honestly, I have no need, at my age, to get out of it. I am tempted to take off my large chain ring and hurl it into the Bayou. My last 200K brevet, I had managed to screw up my front derailleur and hadn't yet figured out how to fix it, so I just put the chain on the small chain ring and rode the brevet that way without a bit of inconvenience. If I could design my perfect bike, it would have way more low gears and way fewer big gears than anything I have seen off the shelf.